Saturday, April 21, 2012

Bughouse Chess

A Bughouse game, from here.
On Thursday nights, I head down to the local coffee shop to play chess.
I love chess, though I'll save all the reasons for that for a different post. Suffice it to say I find the game satisfying whether I win or lose because chess is a narrative. My moves counter your moves while each move subtly hints at future moves. When read in reverse it's often easy to see where the crucial blunder occurred, which move of mine opened the avenue for your attack, and how I could have foiled the threat if I'd only seen. Like a novel, the fulcrum moment is easy to identify when it's over, but while we're in the middle of the action anything remains possible. Like baseball, it's a game that rewards steady play, where the consistent accumulation of advantages causes a lead to snowball.

But at Thursday night chess, we also play a very different game called Bughouse Chess. Two boards are set side by side, and each side plays with a 5 minute clock. My partner sits in the seat beside me playing the opposite color I play. The catch is that (if I'm playing white) as I capture my opponents black pieces, I pass them to my partner- who can then drop them onto the board in any legal position.

It's fast-paced, brutal, and almost random. Since I have no control over what pieces I (or my opponent!) will receive or when, strategy can largely be summed up as: keep your king safe, and if you're on the attack (have tempo or initiative in chess-speak) never ever ever stop attacking.

I've been thinking a lot about what is a game since I read this really great essay in the New York Times Magazine about viral video games. Its author posits that there is a distinction between a game and what he calls a "stupid game," "a repetitive, storyless puzzle that could be picked up, with no loss of potency, at any moment, in any situation."

In Bughouse, I find my game often follows this structure: my partner begins to lose material in uneven exchanges or in outright losses, this material shifts to my opponents bank, and once my attack is stymied my opponent launches an attack that results in my checkmate; as the defeated player, I give up my seat to the next person waiting to play. The catch is that I can't shake the feeling that I didn't lose, at least not in a chess sense. My partner lost through a seemingly endless sacrifice of material, the checkmate just happened to fall on my board. (I don't mean this to sound onesided: I'm a terribly bughouse player, and I'm often the blundering partner who costs my team the game). It's exactly that feeling of uncontrol that makes the game interesting, a shot of surprise injected into a game of meticulous cause and effect.

The game frustrates me because I feel that there's a limit to how much a player can learn, and after a few basic opening strategies, the game becomes unpredictable. So is Bughouse a game of luck?

Like chess, there are no randomizing elements: no dice to roll or cards to flip or wheels to spin. In chess, no player ever wins because he's lucky. He wins because he played a better, more complete, more inspired game than his opponent. When you lose in chess (and I lose quite often) it's because you didn't play well enough. In chess, there is a remedy: play more, identify your errors, learn, and try again.

The only thing separating Bughouse from Tetris and Angry Birds is that you need three partners, and it can't be played on a Kindle.

Which is not to say that Bughouse isn't interesting or that it isn't instructive in a tangential way to chess. In the same way that studying chess puzzles can help increase a player's vision, Bughouse can teach a player interesting lessons about the value of tempo, and it will change how you evaluate your attack possibilities.

It's also really fun, in a room filled with 8 or 10 players (as our coffee shop often is) to play games that make people work together, talk to each other, and (since we play on a 5 minute clock) get up often to switch opponents. I don't want to make it sound like I hate Bughouse. I'm just wondering: is it a game? Can we learn from it, get better at it, develop strategies that can be played and tested? Or is it a "stupid game," an exercise disguised as strategy that (no matter how much fun we have while we do it) is analogous to playing Tetris, where we mash buttons until the pieces fall too fast for us to react?

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